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Auto mercury switch agreement announced

Sep 14, 2006Last month, the US EPA announced it had reached agreement with the auto industry, steel industry, state agency representatives, and environmentalists on a voluntary national program funded by the auto and steel industry to remove mercury switches from vehicles before they are scrapped. In addition to the cost of transporting and recycling the switches, and educating the people who will remove them, the auto and steel industries will establish a $4 million fund to be used to partially reimburse dismantlers for the cost of removing and handling the switches.

The agreement, which created the National Vehicle Mercury Switch Recovery Program (NVMSRP), was signed by the American Iron & Steel Institute, Environmental Defense, Automotive Recyclers Association, End of Life Vehicle Solutions, Inc. (an association of car manufacturers), Ecology Center, Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries, Environmental Council of the States (an association of state environment agency leaders), Steel Manufacturers Association, and the US Environmental Protection Agency.

Note that individual states, state legislatures and Governors are not part of the agreement.

It is NCEL's understanding that the agreement does not preempt existing state laws and programs. It does prohibit the auto industry from attempting to repeal existing state mercury switch laws. It also prohibits the signers from attempting to enact new mercury switch laws in states that do not currently have laws in place or from making current laws stricter than the national voluntary agreement. State legislators could, however, pursue new or stricter laws as they are not part of the agreement.

From 1974 through 2002, domestic automakers installed over 200 million mercury switches - containing nearly 250 tons of mercury - in hood and trunk lighting and braking applications. These switches will remain in the steel-scrap supply for the next 10 to 15 years. When these switches are not removed prior to recycling, the mercury is released to the environment during the steel melting process, threatening public health.

The steel industry recycles about 12 to 14 million end-of-life vehicles each year. Even a single gram of mercury, the amount found in one auto switch, can contaminate a 20 acre lake to the degree that fish would be unsafe to eat, according to the Washington Department of Ecology. Auto switches from pre-2003 automobiles currently represent the largest manufacturing source of mercury air emissions, surpassed only by two combustion sources: coal-fired power plants and industrial boilers. (Sources: Ecology Center, & Washington State Department of Ecology,

The steel industry was a big proponent, along with environmentalists, of state legislation to require auto manufacturers to develop and fund mercury switch collection programs. Auto dismantlers and scrap steel processors also supported such legislation that would provide compensation from automakers for the more cost-effective approach of removing switches at vehicle end-of-life.

The following state legislatures have enacted laws to encourage or require removal of auto mercury switches for recycling or proper disposal prior to their demolition: Arkansas (SB323,2005), California (SB633, 2001), Illinois (HB5578, 2006), Indiana (HB1110, 2006), Iowa (HF2363, 2006), Louisiana (SB615, 2006), Maine (LD1921, 2001), Massachusetts (S2464, 2006), Minnesota (SS116.92,sub. 4(c), 1996), New Jersey (A2482, 2004), North Carolina (HB1136, 2005), Oregon (HB3007, 2001), Rhode Island (S2668, 2006), Texas (H2793, 2005), Utah (HB138, 2006), Vermont (HB876, 2006), South Carolina (H3922, 2006), and Virginia (HB447 & SB88, 2006).

Other states have removal/recycling programs developed by state agencies including Colorado, Michigan, Minnesota, New York, Washington, and Wisconsin. A list of state laws can be viewed online at: If you would like a copy of any state's law, contact NCEL

The Agreement
The recent agreement, a memorandum of understanding (MOU), was announced on August 11, 2006. The goal will be to remove 4 million switches over the next three years. The key partners and some of their unique roles are summarized by USEPA:

-Ten automakers created the End of Life Vehicle Solutions Corporation (ELVS), which will provide dismantlers with information and supplies needed for switch removal, collect and transport switches to proper recycling and disposal facilities, and track program performance.

-Participating dismantlers will remove mercury-containing switches and ship them to ELVS, giving the dismantlers the ability to market reduced mercury scrap and earn recognition and certain financial incentives.

-Participating scrap recyclers will build awareness of the mercury switch removal program in their own industry and in the dismantling industry, which is their chief supplier of scrap vehicles.

-Participating steelmakers will educate and encourage their supply chain to participate, and will take steps to purchase scrap metal generated from participating dismantlers and recyclers that have removed the mercury-containing switches.

-According to EPA, these industries will have support from participating environmental groups; the Environmental Council of the States (ECOS), the association representing state environmental agencies; and U.S. EPA.

-The environmental groups, Environmental Defense and the Ecology Center, have agreed to publicly endorse the program; support outreach, education, and oversight related activities, and participate in the development and improvement of data collection efforts related to mercury recovery. ECOS, which provided extensive guidance and information to develop the program, will now take a number of steps to implement it. In addition, ECOS and the partners will work to coordinate this program with existing State programs and to provide services to States without such programs.

-Finally, U.S. EPA has committed to take the national program into account in future rulemaking affecting scrap metal-using industries, to share information broadly about the program and its benefits, and to assist in efforts to assess and improve it. (Source: USEPA:

The auto makers and steel industry will create a $4 million fund to help reimburse junkyards for the cost of pulling out and collecting the switches.

Recycling representatives argue that the $4 million dollar fund will not cover the costs of removing the switches. The Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries (ISRI), who signed the agreement, says it costs $3 worth of labor to remove one switch. If all of the $4 million dollar fund set up by the national agreement went directly to payments for removing switches, junkyards would only receive $1 per switch. If EPA is to reach its goal of 4 million switches removed in three years, and if the ISRI estimate of $3/switch is correct, then more money will be needed. Washington state alone has $1 million for collection and at lest $1- to $20 million is what is really needed to implement the national program, critics say.

Proponents of the agreement counter that the $4 million reimbursement fund may be the only opportunity for dismantlers to be reimbursed in states that do not have laws requiring reimbursement or in states that do not choose to spend state money on this issue (like Washington, Pennsylvania and Ohio have done). The MOU also obligates the steel industry to use its purchasing power to encourage dismantlers to participate in the program, a potentially powerful motivating force. The MOU also commits the signatories to a system of continuous review and improvement. The issue of the adequacy of the reimbursement will be discussed as the program progresses.

Effects on state laws/programs
There are three sections of the agreement that relate to existing and future state laws and programs to require removal and recycling of mercury switches from cars. It is again important to note that these provisions only apply to organizations that signed the MOU, which does NOT include State Legislatures or Governors.

1) The national Program will be implemented at the State level, in consultation with (but not necessarily dependent upon) appropriate state entities and the other Parties to this agreement. In States where statutory and voluntary programs currently exist, the responsibilities of the Parties will be carried out in support of the existing State program. In States where there is not an existing program, the Parties will implement the responsibilities described in this agreement.

2) With respect to State legislation that is not consistent with responsibilities as described in this agreement, all Parties to this agreement agree that no new State legislative activities will be initiated. In addition, Parties agree to support the national program in any new State that considers legislation and agree not to initiate legislative action to eliminate any existing State vehicle mercury recovery program. Parties can engage in legislative activity for the sole purpose of correcting statutory deficiencies, but not for the purpose of substantively altering statutes to cause fee structures to increase or otherwise encumber another party to this agreement.

(Note: As a signer of the agreement, ECOs cannot formally speak for governors and legislatures)

3) The parties agree that in States with existing programs, the NVMSRP will not replace programs, requirements, or responsibilities that are more stringent than those assumed in this program. The parties also agree that, in States with programs that are less complete or less stringent, the parties will work together to determine how to integrate the NVMSRP program expectations and responsibilities in support of the existing program.

More information can be found at the following websites.

Links to press reports about the agreement:
"Mercury Culling Plan Called Unrealistic", Detroit Free Press:

New York Times:

News Blaze:

Additional resources:
Ecology Center:
End of Life Vehicle Solutions (auto manufacturers):
Environmental Council of States:
Environmental Defense:

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